Israel suffers from a terrible leadership crisis. Want proof? Consider that two weeks ago, the Labor Party chose as party chairman Ehud Barak. Yes, the same Ehud Barak who was trounced by Ariel Sharon in 2000, after having served as prime minister only 19 months of a four-year term. With his usual perspicacity George Will pronounced Barak, at the time, "perhaps the most calamitous leader any democracy has had." Not just the worst Israeli leader ever, but the worst leader produced by any democracy since Athens.
And what has Barak done since his humiliating electoral defeat in 2000 to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the public? He divorced his wife of 34 years, made millions of dollars, mostly abroad, and purchased a luxury apartment in one of Israel's most exclusive buildings. He did not involve himself in one public initiative or take part in any public debate on the issues facing Israeli society.
Worse, the one perceived "success" of Barak's term in office – the hasty, middle-of-the-night withdrawal from Lebanon -- did not look like such a success to most Israelis after last summer's war with Hizbullah. Hizbullah rushed into the vacuum left by the Israeli departure and turned the South into one giant launching pad for over 15,000 missiles.
O.K., so Barak has not done much to regain the public's confidence after his disastrous tenure as prime minister. Still he is a smart guy, even a genius – as the media constantly reminded us when he was running against Binyamin Netanyahu – and he surely has lots of good ideas on how Israel should deal with some of the most pressing problems confronting her.
Not to judge from the five months of campaigning leading up to the Labor primary to replace the hapless Amir Peretz. Barak refused to speak in any forum larger than a roomful of Labor party activists, and even then, only without the press present. About the Iranian nuclear threat, the transformation of Gaza into another Iranian proxy, the threats issuing from Syria, he had not one word to say. Zippo.
The entire campaign, as Caroline Glick described it, consisted of the two leading candidates, Barak and Ami Ayalon, regaling closed meetings with tales of "their glory and wisdom" and assembling a star-studded list of retired generals and party intellectuals to offer testimony to their wisdom and the shallowness and corruption of their opponents. But about the dangers facing Israel nary a word.
In the end, what Barak offered Labor voter was his reputation as a killer. Birds flying over Barak's head drop dead, quipped Larry Derfner in the Jerusalem Post. His certainty about his Divine mandate to lead the nation and ruthless determination to make sure that nothing stands between him and fulfillment of that mandate proved to be Barak's chief electoral asset. He had defeated the hated Binyamin Netanyahu once, he told Labor voters, and only he could do so again.
In short, the only real subject of the Labor campaign was blind ambition, or as Caroline Glick put it, "acquiring and preserving power – for the candidates, for the Labor party and for the Israeli Left as a whole. The underlying theme of the Labor primary was that power must be maintained at all costs . . . because more frightening than Iran or Syria or Hamas or Hizbullah is the specter of Knesset elections," and the likely return of the hated Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu hatred is the Israeli equivalent of Bush hatred, and just as implacable. The media and the Left can simply not forgive Netanyahu for being articulate, for leading the polls, even for all that he has done for Israel in the last three years. Almost all economists give him much credit as Finance Minister for the economic reforms that set the stage for the current surging economy; he is consistently one of the most effective defenders of Israel around the world; and his latest initiative to push state pension plans holding billions of dollars in assets to divest from companies strategically aiding Iran holds the promise of exerting real pressure on the mullahs.
YOUNG BOYS WHO GROW UP dreaming of being president are attracted to the thought of wielding power long before they have any concept of the purposes for which they might seek to do so. The problem in Israel is that our politicians too frequently seem to have never grown beyond that stage. So powerful is their ambition that they cannot separate their personal interests from the national interests.
Yossi Verter, a leading political commentator at Ha'aretz, shares an anecdote that perfectly captures how intertwined are the national and the personal interests in the eyes of Israeli politicians. He tells of a Kadima cabinet minister who went to visit a rabbi famed for his ability to foretell the future. The rabbi told him that he had good and bad news for him. The bad news was that another war will break out this summer; the good news: that war will strengthen prime minister Olmert's position. The cabinet member left the meeting, Verter reported, at once pessimistic about the coming war but buoyed by the prospects that his job was safe. And, Verter implied, it was not immediately obvious which was uppermost in his mind.
The tragedy is that Israelis don't even hold such thinking against their politicians; it no longer occurs to them that politicians can think any differently. Discussing Ehud Barak's appointment as Defense Minister, the media speculates that he will launch a major military strike on Hamas in Gaza in the near future. What lies behind that prediction? The assessment that a major military operation will help to burnish Barak's image and remind everyone that he is a former chief of staff and the most decorated soldier in Israel's history.
No one is even appalled to find themselves discussing a military operation in which dozens of Jewish lives might be lost in terms of its likely political impact on the next elections. Nor is the suspicion of engaging in such political calculations even thought to be a stain of the new defense minister. We have become too cynical. Everybody is suspected of being primarily out for himself, even when Jewish lives are at stake.
And if that is true of Ehud Barak, it is even more so of Prime Minister Olmert. Olmert is basically in the position of the quarterback of a team on its own ten yard line, down by six points, and with time left for only one play. He has no choice but to go for the bomb. Even if he were to guide the country through the Scylla and Charybdis of dangers on all sides, he would get little credit from the Israeli public. They have washed their hands of him, and are no more likely to judge his subsequent performance fairly than the media is to judge Netanyahu's favorably.
His only hope of retaining office is to try for some dramatic breakthrough on the "peace" front. For the Israeli public, the downside risks of such an attempt are great. Every removal of Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank, for instance, is immediately followed a drive-by killing of an Israeli Jew. But for Olmert, the consummately ambitious politician, there is little downside risk because there is no further down to go. And no one in the country is betting that those risks will not be taken.
Politicians in all countries tend to see an equation between the national interest and their electoral success. Democratic senators, like Harry Reid and Charles Schumer, have on more than one occasion let the veil slip and come pretty close to cheering American setbacks in Iraq as guaranteeing Democrats the next election. If one of the Democratic candidates for president has given any thought to the consequences for American interests of a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, they are not sharing any such thoughts with Democratic voters in next year's primaries.
Nor are they giving any thought to what changes in American strategy might yet salvage something from Iraq. There are liberals who do think about these matters. Kenneth Pollack, a former member of the National Security Council in the Clinton administration and the author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq for one. But no Democratic presidential candidate would dare to do so. Instead each of the candidates is busy trying to find some way to distinguish him or herself as the most anti-war of the bunch.
The difference in Israel is that the threats facing the nation are greater than those facing any other nation. There is no other nation whose very existence is anathema to so many other states. And therefore the danger of politicians injecting considerations of political gain and loss into their consideration of the most delicate matters of national security is greater in Israel than in America. And yet in no other democratic country are the politicians quite so brazen in their open display of political ambition.
It was not always thus. The most recent Labor primary coincided with the fortieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. The period leading up to the war was one of near panic in Israel. And the behind-the-scenes cabinet debates between those pushing for a quick pre-emptive strike against the Egyptians and those led by Prime Minister Levi Eshkol arguing for the necessity of giving American diplomatic initiatives a bit more time were bitter and tense. The cabinet was divided equally between the two factions.
Yet if one reads the protocols of those cabinet debates in Michael Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East one is struck by something else as well: How little political considerations figured in those debates. Both sides of the debate understood that their decisions could be the difference between Israel's survival and destruction. And they approached the discussions with that seriousness.
The dangers facing Israel today may not be quite as dramatic, but they are plenty dramatic enough. The country can no longer afford a political class incapable of putting aside its personal political advantage, even at moments of ultimate danger. And the Jews of Israel, who will bear the brunt of the decisions of those self-interested politicians, cannot be expected to continue doing so without something to restore their faith that their leaders value the lives of Israeli citizens more than their own power.